Thank you deeply, Robert W. Smith (1927-2011)
Particularly for a man I never met — but certainly wanted to — Robert W. Smith has had a hugely positive influence on my life.
Bob Smith, who departed his body on July 1, 2011, apparently played a huge role in bringing quality internal martial arts teaching and information to the West. He was the first Western student of t’ai chi legend Cheng Man Ch’ing. He taught my first two t’ai chi teachers Ellen and Leonard Kennedy, whom I studied with primarily in 1994-95. I later redirected my t’ai chi practice with the amazing Julian Chu, who teaches less than a mile from me on Sundays, and during the summers leads practices in Carderock Park.
Stationed in Taiwan in the 1950’s with the Central Intelligence Agency, Bob Smith made the time to meet and study with some of the island’s greatest martial artists. He returned to Bethesda, Maryland — which is close to all places I have lived since 1986 — and led free weekly t’ai chi practices in the parking lot of the Bethesda YMCA. By the time he relocated to North Carolina in 1988, I was still six years away from beginning my t’ai chi study and practice. Consequently, numerous local t’ai chi teachers learned from Mr. Smith, as did many more people who come to local t’ai chi practices.
Bob Smith apparently was very modest about his contributions to martial arts. Tremendous alone, though, were the gifts he passed on from his very tenacity to learn from t’ai chi legend Cheng Man Ch’ing, who made Smith wait six months to learn with Cheng, while Smith studied with CMC’s student T.T. Liang, a legend in his own right. Mr. Smith went beyond t’ai chi also to become proficient at judo, Pa-Kua Chang and Hsing-I Chuan.
Mr. Smith helped write and translate such key martial arts texts as Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods (a fascinating read that inspires to practice one’s internal martial art daily with full dedication), T’ai Chi: The "Supreme Ultimate" Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense (with Cheng Man Ch’ing), T’ai Chi Ch’uan Ta Wen (translating with Ben Lo). Here is one of his bibliographies, both under Mr. Smith’s real name, and under his pseudonym John Gilbey .
Such people as Bob Smith help me reduce any judging of people, in this instance with his having been a CIA agent. T’ai chi, and I suppose all martial arts, are generally so politics-free (except in China, for instance, whose government apparently fears or previously feared emphasizing the martial aspects of t’ai chi, and which banned t’ai chi as one of the Olds during the Cultural Revolution), that great t’ai chi practitioners are found even in such repressive places as Singapore. In that sense, then, t’ai chi helps disintegrate political and social barriers, particularly when considering that engaging and sensing others are key parts of t’ai chi.
This picture of CMC students Bob Smith and Ben Lo (more photos of Mr. Smith and friends and associates are here) pushing hands highlights how important they are to me, in that the two of them taught every t’ai chi teacher with whom I have studied or whose practice sessions I have attended, those being Bob’s students Ellen and Len Kennedy, and Ben Lo’s students Julian Chu and David Walls-Kaufman.
I bow in deep gratitude to Bob Smith.